Northport VA Medical Center
Reflections: Steps for Homeless Veterans.
Northport VA Golf Course – There isn’t a whole lot that can get me out of bed early on a Saturday. I feel like my week is a marathon and on Friday night my wife and I cross the finish line at 9 p.m., do a second-rate job of getting the kids to bed, then sit on the couch for all of an hour before we crash. Saturday morning is usually our recovery time. We sleep in a bit, have breakfast together, wait awhile before we change out of our pajamas and take things easy, but this morning was Steps for Homeless Vets and I wanted to be there.
Steps for Homeless Vets is a walk to raise awareness, support and supplies for the Long Island homeless veteran population. The event includes a registration and donation area where participants are encouraged to donate money and materials such as clothes, toiletries and blankets, and then the participants are asked to take a lap around the one-mile loop laid out at the Northport VA Golf Course to show their support.
As my children and I made our lap around the course, I asked what they thought it would be like to be a homeless veteran.
“I would just come back home and live with you and Mommy,” one of my kids said.
“What do they do when it’s raining and snowing out?” another of my kids asked.
As I answered their questions, I realized that they couldn’t even comprehend what real homelessness is like and had no idea how close we, ourselves, were to being homeless when I got out of the military.
It was 2011 and the recession was making it hard for everyone to find jobs. I had gotten out of the military and, despite the best laid plans, was unable to find work for seven months. With all the bills a family of eight includes, I was getting deeply behind on payments for things like the family car . Basic necessities like home heating oil were now among the things that we couldn’t afford and I was constantly worrying that I wouldn’t be able to scrape together enough cash for rent. In addition to the financial strain, the scarcity of jobs was taking its toll on my confidence and standards. There weren’t a lot of jobs available that would afford me the same pay that I was making in the military and despite hundreds of resumes sent out, I was not called to interview for any of them. As my standards gradually lowered, I started looking for a job that would pay anything at all, but I was turned down for minimum wage jobs because I was over-qualified. After months of rejection from even the most basic part-time jobs, I was beginning to find fewer reasons to get out of bed in the morning and the idea of being successful again seemed like faraway dream.
Thankfully, with the help and support of family, friends, church and the VA, I found my way back to the workforce and was even able to finish my college degree. Now, two years later, I find myself gainfully employed and my family’s finances are back on track. But there are a lot of veterans out there who aren’t as fortunate as I am. Those, whose war wounds left them so injured that they couldn’t find their place among their closest friends and families; those who did not eventually find the kind of work that I did, which allowed them to have some structure and purpose to their day.
It is this thought that gets me out of bed, early on a Saturday morning, to go and walk a mile reflecting on what walking that same mile would be like for a homeless veteran. It is not something my children can imagine and I suppose it is not something that a lot of people can imagine. To have survived serving your country with the Armed Forces only to watch your life descend into homelessness, is the kind of experience that shouldn’t exist in the richest country in the world. Sadly, it does.
On Long Island there are hundreds of veterans living on the streets and perhaps thousands that are at risk for living on the streets; living paycheck to paycheck or sleeping on a friend’s couch. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric K. Shinseki, has made it the goal of the VA to end veteran homelessness by 2014, and we here at Northport VA Medical Center share his goals. By showing up at events like Steps for Homeless Veterans, which is sponsored and coordinated by the Suffolk County Vietnam Veterans of America, we do our part to serve those who have served us and weren’t able to make their way back to society.